Why Is Congress So Ineffective? (Part 1 of 3)

It’s not difficult to find someone on any street in America that takes a negative view of Congress. It’s also not difficult to understand why people feel this way. Indeed this attitude toward the federal government has changed from apathy to hostility and the rise of anti-establishment candidates in the current Presidential race is, in part, a manifestation of this hostility toward the Washington consensus.There are many reasons why Congress in that last few years has become so unpopular and this series of articles will look at a few of them. This piece shall look at the ideological polarisation in American society as a contributing factor to the current political paralysis. Specifically I believe there are two ideological aspects that are causing the stand-off between the two parties and the mainstream media will often mischaracterise this divide.

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Congress used to be able to pass bills but recently that’s not been the case. (Martin Stelbrink via Flickr)
The first of these ideological considerations is the nature of political discourse and the two parties’ positions in this discourse. Throughout US political history the Democratic and Republican parties had been big-tent parties that could appeal to almost all independent voters that didn’t have an interest in politics; for example until very recently there were ‘liberal Republicans’ and ‘conservative Democrats’.
Indeed before the current two-party system had taken root the different political parties that existed, although targeting different sets of voters, could conceivably win the vote of vast swathes of the population. For example in the 1912 Presidential election there were four candidates Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, Republican William Howard Taft, and Progressive Teddy Roosevelt; all of the candidates put forward a policy programme that could appeal to working people, middle-class professionals, and wealthy business owners thus making their appeal plausible to many people.
As a result of these big-tent approaches there was a significant party overlap as liberals in the Democratic and Republican parties could work together and make separate pitches to fellow party members. Congress could pass bipartisan legislation because the those who opposed free trade, for example, were not all from one party. Because of this bipartisan approach to Congressional politics, the party who controlled the House and the Senate was less relevant as the divisions that existed on issues was based on ideology rather than party policy. Don’t exaggerate what I just stated, of course there were fundamental policy differences between the parties, but on legislation that prompted particularly vehement opposition on ideological grounds, the parties both had to deal with dissent as both parties had liberals, moderates, and conservatives.
It is difficult to definitively point to one moment in recent political history that created the current political discourse but a decent candidate is the popular appeal of Ronald Reagan. The election of Reagan in 1980 brought together an array of strands of conservative thought into the GOP; evangelical Christians, social conservatives, libertarians, right-wing neo-liberals, and neo-conservatives became the Republican ideological springboard. The election of Reagan and the policies he implemented recast the American political discourse in the same way FDR had done with the New Deal.
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Reagan’s election laid the foundations for the GOP swerve to the right. (US Government)
The coalition that Reagan put together for the Republicans was a sizeable amount of the country and the policies that were enacted were, largely, in keeping with what this base wanted. However because Reagan’s policies were aimed at these new entrants on the Right of the party, many Republicans who were liberal on issues like abortion and LGBT rights joined the Democrats, just as the Dixiecrats had joined the Republicans after Lyndon B. Johnson aligned the Democrats with the Civil Rights Movement.
This realignment is never really about in this context but I feel that it is fundamental in explaining the current Congressional inaction. With liberals and conservatives separating into different political parties, the ideological divisions would no longer be able to be remedied with bipartisanship. As a result of this realignment, with the Democrats becoming the de facto liberal party and the GOP becoming the de facto conservative party, Congressional disagreement began to split down party lines more often.
The second ideological aspect is best explained by the latest crystallisation of this disagreement: the emergence of grassroots movements. In the wake of the 2007-08 Financial Crisis there were two famous grassroots movements that were formed as mouthpieces of discontent: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. The fundamental difference between the two of these groups, in their mobilisation strategy, was that Occupy Wall Street, despite attracting left-wing members of the Democratic Party, the Democratic leadership ignored the demands of the group. Occupy Wall Street used language that invoked socialist ideas, because many of the members were far more left-wing that the Democrats, and because of the Clintonite consensus of centrist neo-liberalism, the DNC could ignore what the group was saying without fear of electoral repercussions. The Tea Party faced the same problem with the GOP hierarchy but by channeling the anger toward Wall Street against the current political system into sponsoring candidates in electoral races, the GOP leadership had to listen.
The GOP has shifted further to Right because the elected officials, both at the state and federal level, identify as party of the Tea Party. An example of this would be in the case of former GOP House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, who, despite being a right-wing Republican, was considered as a member of establishment and lost a primary race in 2014 to Dave Brat, a candidate supported by the Tea Party. With the GOP hierarchy having to pay attention to more and more right-wing people, the discourse has become toxic.
The Democratic leadership is still of the view that corporate capitalism, like that supported by the Clintons, is the way to win elections because it was successful in the 1990s; despite this migration from left-wing liberalism to uncompromising centrism, Tea Party Republicans have hardly anything in common, ideologically speaking, with these Democrats.
For example most Congressional Democrats support free trade policies, hence their support for NAFTA under Bill Clinton, however many members of the Tea Party use paleo-conservative ideas like ‘American Exceptionalism’ to justify the implementation of trade tariffs and protectionist measures. Where their used to be ideological differences spanned both parties, the dissent that emerged, in a weird way, brought the two together out of political necessity.
The uncompromising attitude of the Tea Party has changed the make-up of the Republican Party. The Tea Party’s attitude towards compromise with Democrats, which some more unstable Tea Party members have likened to treason, is a key reason, alongside the parties’ ideological realignment, that Congress is now so inept. In identifying the inability of Congress to pass meaningful legislation, the ideological dimension cannot be ignored; if the Republican Party continues its right-ward trajectory, Congress will remain ineffective and legislation will not be enacted.
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These people attending a Tea Party rally in Washington DC seem to misunderstand that socialism and Hitlerism are not the same thing. (Ben Jacobs)
The question then becomes: what to do about this divide? The answer is to abandon the idea of bipartisanship. The Democratic Party should move away from the Clintonite consensus and become an FDR-style social democratic party rather than continue drifting toward Republican positions. The Democrats have had to try and reach out to the GOP because of the Republicans’ ideological migration but this is on the presumption that an extreme right-wing GOP is worth working with.
If the Democrats were unashamedly left-wing there would be legislation flying out of Washington because they would be so popular with the electorate that they would always control the Congress. Admittedly there are other factors that cause Congress to hit an impasse on a seemingly daily basis, but the ideological fact remains: if one political party has shifted so far to the right that compromise is likened to treason, there is no point adopting unpopular policies in order to keep bipartisanship alive.
The Democrats should tap into the left-wing populism that Bernie Sanders has energised and implement their agenda once both the Senate and the House are recaptured. They should delete the word bipartisanship from their dictionaries, implement left-wing policies that are popular, and use these legislative achievements as reasons to continue letting the Democrats control Congress.
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